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Best at Preparing for the Worst

Civil defense: Thanks to a career safety analyst, San Jose's terrorism response plan has become a model for the nation.

November 04, 2001|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JOSE — Frances Edwards-Winslow knows all about the frustration of preaching the homeland defense gospel in what she calls the long years of public denial before the Sept. 11 attacks.

As the city's Office of Emergency Services director, she launched a campaign in 1997 to prepare for the aftermath of a potential terrorist offensive that went from the white-collar office buildings of Silicon Valley to the farthest rural corner of Santa Clara County.

But her efforts were often met with wry smiles and wisecracks--or worse--from those who viewed her as some confused Don Quixote chasing imaginary disaster windmills. Like the heated response of a hospital administrator when Edwards-Winslow showed up to offer him free patient decontamination equipment: He had her escorted off the premises.

"He said, 'Are you that woman who's here to talk to me about terrorism?' " Edwards-Winslow said. "I handed him my card and he backed away like I had the plague. He said, 'Get out of my hospital! I'm not going to listen to anything you have to say!' "

Nowadays, people nationwide are listening closely to what she has to say--the career safety analyst has quietly become an in-demand national expert on terrorism preparedness.

Under Edwards-Winslow's guidance, San Jose--the nation's 11th-largest city, with a population of 900,000--was the first city to complete the Pentagon's training program for terrorism preparedness in 1998 and fully coordinate community emergency services.

City's Plan Listed on Federal Web Sites

The federal government has presented San Jose's terrorism response plan as a national model for 120 other cities designing similar civil defense protocols. Listed on several secure federal Web sites, the plan has inspired scores of calls from areas that want to emulate San Jose.

At a cost of $1.4 million in federal funds and millions more from its own coffers, the city's strategy consists of an array of often-secret plans and equipment that Edwards-Winslow says seemingly "come straight out of a movie starring Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford."

There are robots specially designed to handle hazardous materials and gas detectors to warn emergency response workers of the presence of dangerous substances. Hospitals across the area also stock bioterrorism manuals to give doctors a heads-up on red-flag symptoms that could signal a possible chemical attack. In addition, the city has stockpiled antibiotics to fight outbreaks of rare diseases.

San Jose city officials have supported Edwards-Winslow's plan because they reason that it made good sense to be prepared for any disaster.

In a city with a $2.4-billion annual budget, a few million dollars was a small investment, they said.

"We knew that learning how to better respond to an earthquake or terrorist attack would pay dividends down the road," said David Vossbrink, a spokesman for Mayor Ron Gonzales.

Last year, San Jose got a return for its money. Emergency officials used their terrorist response training when pranksters released Mace canisters at several department stores.

About 125 people were injured, including nine pregnant women. Officials say the terrorist response plans helped them more quickly determine who the sickest victims were and treat them first.

Since September, Edwards-Winslow has received calls seeking guidance in developing civil defense plans--the first from the same San Jose-area hospital where Edwards-Winslow had once been kicked off the property.

"Let's just say the concept of responding to domestic terrorism is no longer a hard sell," she said.

For Edwards-Winslow, the newfound national emphasis on civil preparedness underscores a long-held personal vision--born when she was an analyst for the Irvine Police Department developing a security strategy for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Since then, she has worked to develop terrorism response procedures as a bona fide professional field. With dual master's degrees and a doctorate in public administration, she has been trained in the handling of dangerous chemicals wearing protective suits and has taught courses on terrorism awareness for public employees.

Edwards-Winslow has co-written several academic articles on terrorism response and consulted with federal agencies to develop timely plans.

She refers to herself as "the quarterback and cheerleader" of San Jose's Metropolitan Medical Task Force, a terrorism response unit that includes police, fire and medical personnel.

San Jose Police Chief William Lansdowne calls her the heart and soul of the city's response plan.

"Fran was the guiding light to put this all together," he said. "This is her specialty, her baby. And a lot of people in the city are resting a bit easier because of her."

Added Ellis Stanley, general manager for the Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Department: "Fran has been tenacious at doing a lot of terrorism planning when nobody else wanted to talk about it. She's gone out to get information when others were content to wait for it to come to them."

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